Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the agency which operates buses and light rail in the South Bay and the southern reaches of the Peninsula, has traditionally organized itself according to the principle that bus routes should cover a reasonably comprehensive geographic area, so that given enough time, an individual can essentially travel to most locations in the region using VTA routes, or at least get pretty close. However, VTA’s domain is overwhelmingly suburban, and suburban densities are generally too low to support this sort of service. Indeed, based on the fact that many of their routes see quite low ridership — in some cases, just a few hundred riders throughout the whole day — a majority of South Bay denizens do not take advantage of VTA’s geographic coverage. Moreover, ridership has decreased substantially in the past few years. Bus ridership peaked at a little over 150,000 daily boardings in 1999 before the dot-com bust but has since retreated to around 100,000 daily boardings. VTA’s light rail system can also hardly be deemed a success; daily boardings, which peaked at just over 30,000 in 2001 have since retreated to around 26,000. Not impressive, but it is actually an increase over 2004, when there were fewer than 18,000 daily riders.
However, VTA’s problems are deeper than just low ridership.
This article from the San Jose Mercury News succinctly summarizes the core issues plaguing VTA: high labor costs, inefficient use of funds, and overall operating costs that outpace ridership. Despite the fact that the VTA Board set a farebox recovery rate of 20-25% as a goal by 2007, it did not really articulate a reasonable strategy to achieve that goal, and so the actual rate is just 14%, one of the lowest in the nation. Moreover, even though passenger miles have decreased by 25% in the past five years (reflecting the plunging ridership statistics from above), hourly costs have increased 3% over the same period of time. This past spring, the Hay Group prepared an audit report (yes, it’s a PDF) of VTA operations, and the team’s findings were fairly dismal. It observed that the transit agency worked ineffectively to achieve its goals and was essentially incapable of managing its assets — snarkily remarking that “ ‘build it and the money will appear’ is not an effective fiduciary strategy.” The report also noted that the two-year term rotations for Board positions created excessively high turnover, and that the high turnover combined with inadequate training and the lack of an audit committee resulted in an inexperienced governing body with a lack of direction. The report recommended that VTA think of itself more as a business and offered advice on how the agency ought to restructure itself to better achieve its goals, but ultimately concluded that VTA had “lost it focus”, that the system was vastly underutilized, and that there was a large disconnect between service demand and the service actually being offered.
VTA had also been studying the performance of its routes via the Comprehensive Operations Analysis, and an interesting yet unsurprising result emerged from the data: despite the fact that VTA was aiming for a more comprehensive geographic coverage of its service area, the majority of VTA’s bus ridership is concentrated on just a few routes. The 22/522 route along El Camino Real — by far VTA’s most popular corridor — alone accounts for 20% of the 100,000 daily bus riders. The ten most popular routes, some of which are candidates for bus rapid transit treatment in the future, account for over half of this daily ridership. VTA is shifting its approach in response to this data, and the new approach is consistent with the audit report recommendations, in which it was made abundantly clear that VTA needed to correct its inefficient operations in part by realigning service to match demand. Rather than emphasizing geographic coverage — an approach which has mostly resulted in running lots of empty buses — VTA will cut service in low ridership segments, so as to strengthen its core network of popular routes. By increasing service in areas that have already shown themselves to be supportive of transit, VTA hopes to reverse the trend of decreasing bus ridership. It’s all part of a new campaign, which officially started today, January 14:
Any corny advertising aside, VTA is making changes (detailed, updated schedule information is available here) that will affect the vast majority of its routes:
- Many of the more popular lines (10, 22/522, 23, 25, 26, 60, 61, 62, 64, 66, 70, 72, 73, and 77) will run or will continue to run on headways of 15 minutes or better. The 23, for instance, which is slated to be accompanied by a 523 rapid service in the future, will now run on 12-minute headways. These lines essentially form the core of the bus network.
- A number of community service lines (11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 32, 34, 37, 39, 42, 45, 48, 49, 65, 88, and 89) are consistently but lightly used by certain neighborhoods. The routes will be retained, but due to their lower ridership, will receive service on 28-foot buses that seat only 25 passengers.
- Two new express routes be added: the 168 (which will connect Gilroy/Morgan Hill and San Jose Diridon via Highways 85 and 87) and the 181, which is another route to connect Fremont BART and downtown San Jose, with buses meeting BART trains that terminate at Fremont, supplemented by increased service on the 180 express route.
- A handful of routes have been eliminated altogether: 36, 38, 44, 59, 67, 85, and 305.
- The border area between San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, which features overlapped SamTrans and VTA service, has suffered a blow: the 22 bus will now terminate at Palo Alto Caltrain station. (Under the old service scheme, every other bus went as far as Menlo Park Caltrain, but this last additional segment was not very popular.) VTA will no longer provide any service in San Mateo County, although SamTrans will continue to serve Palo Alto.
It does appear that VTA is consolidating and moving in the right direction: increasing service where demand exists, and ceasing to use resources to provide service in low ridership areas. The agency is not out of the woods yet, though, in terms of top-to-bottom reorganization, and in that sense, “The New VTA” may not be all that different from the old VTA, the new schedules notwithstanding. The Mercury News article linked to above points out that in 2006, VTA’s pet project campaign for the additional 1/8-cent sales tax would have generated less than $40 million; not an inconsequential amount, but less money than VTA could have recovered just by getting its finances in order. Given the service cuts, I do not think that “The New VTA” campaign will be successful in drawing voters to the 1/8-cent sales tax, if that was even the underlying intention. Many people may simply realize that there is a new schedule (and some service cuts), while downplaying or not even noticing improvements like the slightly-decreased headways on the 23.
VTA still has a long way to go in order to increase ridership and farebox recovery rates, and the latest set of changes are still too minimal to bring about the improvements that are needed. In some sense, these changes are more about reallocating resources and juggling existing service, and less about actually increasing service. If VTA is truly committed to boosting its bus ridership, it would be well-advised to implement the organizational recommendations, increase the efficiency of its operations, and use the money saved to substantially improve existing service. The agency would also be advised to augment its bus rapid transit portfolio and work towards creating a viable network of core, frequently-running BRT and light rail lines that would provide more complete and thorough transit service to San Jose and the surrounding South Bay cities. Now that would be a new VTA.